Porters of colonial legacies

By looking through the lenses of Brussels’ diverse youth, 'The Porters' questions the ways Belgium fails to deal with its colonial past.

Still from The Porters, 2022.

In the short documentary film Les Porteurs (The Porters), Sarah Vanagt uses the Belgian memory game, “I set off on a journey and I take with me …,” to question Belgium’s unaddressed colonial legacies through the eyes of its capital, Brussels’s diverse youth population.

What sets apart Vanagt’s version in the film compared to the original game, is that players choose from an archival list of more than 8,000 objects that were collected in the northeast of Congo as part of the 1911-1913 Hutereau expedition, which aimed to enrich the Museum of the Congo in Tervuren (outside of Brussels). As of today, the list and all its objects remain there, notwithstanding a change in name (“Africamuseum”) and substance (see here for a discussion of the decolonization efforts of the museum).

Prints of tattoos on the right arm of a woman named Da; 140 m of exposed, undeveloped film showing simulacres of fights between pygmies smoking a pipe; a fly; a headdress; slippers and a number 10 phonograph cylinder with the songs of the porters.

Not your regular travel items.

Even the most inventive players of the memory game would not have come up with these objects in their best attempt to win from their competitor(s) by invoking hard-to-remember items. To play this game, participants consecutively repeat all items that previous players listed to take along on their journey and add a new object until a mistake is made, either by listing items in the wrong order or by invoking the wrong object. The memory game is played in Brussels, the capital from where the Congolese and later Rwandan and Burundian colonies were governed, and whose architecture remains a silent witness to the country’s exploitative past. Today, diversity is its richness with inhabitants originating from all over the world. Vanagt draws on this diversity by challenging youth she encounters on squares and parks to play the game. While adolescents from various origins take part, her main protagonists have sub-Saharan African roots. These youngsters do not only play the memory game, but also view the original film material shot by the Hutereau expedition. Spectators view the footage, alternated with close-ups of the youngsters. These intimate shots expose the emotions and internal struggles of the young women and men as they view the disrespect and misplaced superiority evident in the recordings. One of the interlocutors expresses it well: “Looking back on that, it sucks.”

By looking at the colonial past through the lenses of Brussels’ diverse youth, The Porters questions the ways Belgium, as a society, is failing to deal with the legacies and excesses of its colonial past—most recently evidenced by the refusal to apologize for the colonial past upon the conclusion of a parliamentary commission on the topic. Although these adolescents struggle with questions concerning the historical, material, and psychological factors that made such an exploitative and oppressive system possible, as a viewer it is hard not to wonder why they did not critically engage with Belgium’s colonial past and legacies before. As a Belgian, who attended school in Belgium, I know for a fact that it is not thoroughly discussed  in schools (see also this study on the Eurocentric and unbalanced representation of the colonial past in Belgian textbooks).

Notwithstanding “cracks” (protest actions targeting statues of Leopold II, the illustrious king who privately owned “Congo Free State” between 1885 and 1908), this culture of silence turns current generations of young women and men with sub-Saharan African roots into today’s porters. They no longer carry “the white man” as was the case of the Congolese porters in the colonial recordings, yet they bear the brunt of carrying the weight of an unjust and traumatic past that is largely ignored by the larger society they are part of.“It’s heavy, it’s heavy. It’s not easy. It’s all very nasty. It’s not kind of you” sings one of the young men in the documentary to the tune of the song of the porters.

The topic, approach, setting and interlocutors in The Porters evoke earlier work by Vanagt, which can be viewed here). In After years of Walking, she organized screenings in post-genocide Rwanda of a unedited documentary on the origins and ethnic composition of Rwanda created by Belgian missionaries in 1959. Here too, Vanagt centers her interlocutors instead of the footage itself. Besides other contributions set in Belgium’s former colonies, many of her short films are shot in Brussels. Among these, Little Figures similarly questions the colonial past (and its historic precedents). Against the background of their statues in the center of Brussels, three ketjes (kids from Brussels) give voice to King Albert I, Queen Elisabeth I, and Godfriedt de Bouillon, who surrealistically mesmerize about their expeditions to Congo and the crusades respectively. Other work is disconnected from the colonial past, but relatedly examines the ways we look at the world, almost always from the vantage point of children and youth.

As the documentary comes to an end, the “travel items” of the Hutereau expedition become interspersed with contemporary objects and scenes that are part of/constitute the youngsters’ life:

Pillow for widows and widowers, a satchel, an electric scooter to avoid traffic jams, a memory card with the following scenes: youngsters in Brussel smoking a Shisha pipe, youngsters from Brussels called Sekou, Zepeck, Samba with laughing gas canisters and a balloon, flashing police lights during an ID check in Rue de Brabant.

These items further evoke pensive reflections on the legacies of Belgium’s colonial past and most of all of the perpetuation of structures of oppression and inequality today. If there is one observation to be made from the documentary, it is that the past is surely not past.

Further Reading

The Dutch Media Drama

Why is a photo of an empathetic group of young Dutch Moroccans visiting a concentration camp being used to illustrate so many stories in which Moroccans are a “problem”?